The news might have been greeted with a resounding “so what?” outside the antipodes—hemp seeds are legal almost everywhere else. But this is big news Down Under, coming hot on the heels of legalised medicinal marijuana, and the result of nearly two decades of struggle by a small group of hemp campaigners.
Since 1998, the lobby’s strategy has been simple: “Find a politician, try to explain logic and science to them, and repeat,” says hemp entrepreneur Paul Benhaim, one of the strongest and most persistent forces in the fight for legalisation.
It has been 19 years since Application A360 was submitted to the antipodean food regulator, Fsanz, “to permit the use of products from low delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Cannabis sativa such as hemp seed and hemp seed oil as food”—the first of five attempts by hemp advocates to secure legal status for the crop.
The point-blank rejection of this first application was seen as “a very sad milestone” by Benhaim and his fellow travellers, a small group that includes natural heath industry representative body Complementary Medicines Australia, various local and state politicians and the Department of Industry and Innovation.
Though the proposal had been carefully assessed by Fsanz, which determined that hemp seeds were a “valuable nutrient which posed no risk of harm”, a council of ministers rejected it on the grounds that it would “send the wrong message” and posed “difficulties with policing”. Both objections were politically influenced, according to the hemp lobbyists, and illustrated a long-running inability by the political class to differentiate between psychotropic marijuana and benign hemp.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the machinery of government cranked round again to consider a new proposal in the form of Application A1039, which sought “to amend the current restrictive Australian regulations” preventing the sale of hemp seed products for human use. (It is worth noting that hemp seed oil, though not the seeds, has been permitted in New Zealand for the last 15 years.)
The application, filed by Andrew Katelaris, a Sydney agronomist, and printed on “100% tree-free hemp paper”, cited evidence as diverse as the 1893 Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales and authoritative scientific studies from Canada, Finland and China to support its case.
Charged with adjudicating the merits of the proposal, a ministerial forum on food regulation for the Council of Australian Governments (Coag) asked Fsanz to comment on the application, following which the antipodean food regulator voiced its support.
When the forum reconvened two years later to debate the application, it once again asked Fsanz to investigate the matter. This they did and reaffirmed their support for allowing hemp as a food once more. Now daring to hope for a positive resolution, the hemp lobby set their sights on a subsequent Coag meeting, in January 2015. With reams of persuasive scientific evidence and the support of the regulator, they believed they had a strong case.
Yet while acknowledging Fsanz’s advice that “Tolerable daily intake of 6μg [tetrahydrocannabinol] per kg [body weight is] valid and that the maximum limits for THC content of hemp foods are appropriate”, the forum still couldn't be swayed and again took the application off the table. This time the ministers cited a potential for consumer “confusion” between marijuana and hemp, and worried about the implications of hemp seed consumption on roadside drug testing—a non-issue in every other country.
Even state ministers slammed the council's decision. Tasmania’s health minister Michael Ferguson called the forum’s decision “a missed opportunity to remove an unnecessary prohibition on the use of low-THC hemp in food products”.
A shocked Benhaim queried why hemp seeds should even fall under the jurisdiction of a ministerial forum on food regulation.
“What has this got to do with hemp as a food? We don’t know either. Again, it seems the only confusion is the one made by ministers,” he told FoodNavigator-Asia at the time.
“Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Australian and New Zealand people are using hemp seeds, hemp oil and hemp protein, which are only allowed for skincare and not as foods. So it seems the public are not confused.”
To their credit, Coag did still leave the door open for another review.
Last month, everything changed. Having worked closely with Fsanz to convince Coag that hemp’s effect on roadside drug testing wouldn’t be an issue, citing evidence from jurisdictions around the world, and making sure that the ministers understood the difference between marijuana the drug and hemp the food, the lobbyists were able to finally cheer a positive decision by the council.
Though the legislation has now passed, a relieved Benhaim says he is still not sure that the ministers fully understand the pro-hemp arguments. To illustrate this, he says he is preparing to meet two ministers at his factory in Bangalow, New South Wales, to “educate them further on the subject”. This is because one of Hemp Foods’ skincare ranges is still illegal in Australia despite the legislation. “The education part looks like it will continue for a little while longer.”
It has been 24 years since Benhaim kicked off the British hemp food industry by creating Europe’s best selling health snack at the time, 9Bar. Now running Hemp Foods Australia, which was established in 1999, he wears a number of hats: entrepreneur, farmer, manufacturer and lobbyist, to name a few.
“It literally has been my life for the last 24 years, and I will do whatever it takes to bring high-quality hemp products to the mainstream,” he says.
“As our business grows, thankfully I have a wonderful team around me within Hemp Foods Australia, which allows me to step back from the day-to-day running of the business, while I work on ensuring that our wider vision continues.”
He predicts that his business will grow by 400% over the 12 months after the draft standard supported by the Coag ministers is gazetted, and various state and New Zealand-wide legislations are amended—probably in the next six months.
This figure is no more than a cautious estimate because it doesn’t just represent standard business growth, but “actually a new industry that is just beginning”.
“Our sales team have come back from the field reporting that lots of very large, well-known manufacturers and brands have come to them to discuss significant quantities of hemp to be used in their new product development,” he adds.
In some cases, this will just amount to changes in some of their existing formulas. In others, they are looking to produce a hemp alternative to products that are already being sold.
“The growth is looking very real, but we will have a much better indication of what that is like in the coming year,” he adds.
The downside of facing a market that is hard to predict is what will happen if growth outpaces Benhaim’s predictions. There will be a limited supply of hemp seeds as farmers increase their planting—at a time when there is a shortage of seed stock for crops.
He says Hemp Foods will have to be choosy with the companies it supplies if growth hits 800%, which is not an impossibility. This means Benhaim will only be able to entertain manufacturers of “realistic hemp foods”, by which he means products that he sees will have a long-term future, rather than “novel, ‘me-too’ applications”.
It might have taken ministers the best part of 20 years to make a decision, but it feels like members of the Coag forum and police chiefs were the only people in Australia with concerns over the safety of hemp seeds and related products.
It is difficult to encounter any anti-hemp lobbies, or really anybody with a negative word to say about what is likely destined to be regarded in Australia as the country’s newest superfood.
Even NSW Greens agriculture spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham recently admitted to parliament that he would happily break the law over breakfast by sprinkling hemp seeds on his cereal.
“It is pleasing to see this silly law has been dropped and Australia has joined with the rest of the world in accepting hemp food consumption,” he said.
“Finally Coag has stopped dragging its feet, got beyond the stigma, and recognised hemp as a crop and food product with enormous potential.”
Benhaim believes that most consumers understand that hemp is safe and highly nutritious. Indeed, it trumps flax and chia seed for plant sources of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, while a 2014 studyfound hemp oil produced from pressed seeds contains 55% linoleic, 16% alphalinolenic and 11% oleic acid, as well as vitamins A, C and E, and beta-carotene.
It also tastes good, which is why the ingredient has already been generating a buzz among Australia’s upper-crust restaurant scene.
“We are very excited to see how hemp plays a part in the food industry. That’s where I see hemp; not as a niche or alternative, but more as a tasty, nutritional food that would eventually become a commodity, just like other seeds and grains are,” says Benhaim.
“That’s what I see hemp becoming, with a major difference in that hemp can be grown sustainably — you can plant hemp in a field, and after it’s been planted, grown and harvested, the soil is left in a better condition than before.”